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Column Fri Jun 06 2014

Edge of Tomorrow, The Fault in Our Stars, Words and Pictures, Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas, Burt's Buzz & Exposed

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Edge of Tomorrow

You realize almost instantly, and for so many reasons, that the new sci-fi adventure Edge of Tomorrow is different than what has come before it. Not because the story at its core is so different — an alien race called Mimics is slowly taking over Europe in a way that strangely mirrors World War II-era Nazi Germany and it's up to a united global fighting force to stop them — but because of the way that story reveals itself over and over again. But even before we get to the film's masterful gimmick, something else is unusual about the movie: Tom Cruise is cast as a coward. He plays Lt. Col. Bill Cage, which sound like a rough and tough rank and name, but he's actually a guy responsible for getting others to join the fight; he's a marketing guy for the new global fighting force.

But when the head of the troops, Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), orders him to join the first wave of a major push against the aliens on the shores of France to film the event for recruitment purposes, Cage balks and politely refuses since he had no combat experience, leading to him being thrown in cuffs and forced onto the front lines or be labeled a deserter and traitor. Under the command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), Cage is tossed in with a rag-tag group of soldiers and soon placed in a weaponized exo-skeleton (apparently the fighting machine of choice in the future) and dropped into the thick of it, where it's clear the enemy has been waiting for a sneak attack. Not surprisingly, within the first five minutes of being on the ground, Cage is killed.

Boy, that sounds like a boring movie, doesn't it? But that's only the beginning. With a crackling script from Christopher McQuarrie, and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth (based on the novel/manga "All You Need Is Kill" from Hiroshi Sakurazaka) and confident direction by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith), Edge of Tomorrow sets up a scenario that is complex without being complicated, and funnier than I would have ever guessed a non-comedy about the likely end of the world would be. For reasons I won't go into (but it has to do with a specific alien Cage actually manages to kill before he dies), upon dying, Cage wakes up about 24 hours earlier, back to when he wakes up at the staging area for the big invasion. He ends up living the same day all over again, anticipating some of what's about to happen, but ending up dead again nevertheless.

And then he starts to get it, and so do we. He has the opportunity to relive the day and improve upon it to the point where he can train himself on how to use his weapons, where the aliens will be and how to defeat them economically so he can move on to the unknown part of fight. Eventually he starts making shortcuts through his day, so he doesn't have to waste time meeting the same people over and over again. And finally, he befriends the poster soldier for the fight against the aliens, Emily Blunt's Rita Vrataski (a woman Cage helped build up in his recruiting job), who just happens to have experienced this same phenomenon at another big battle months earlier, making her a hero to all humans.

Each time Cage zips through a list of things he knows about someone to convince them that he's lived a particular scene dozens of times over is really funny and taps into a comic timing in Cruise that isn't tapped into nearly enough. As a bit of role reversal, it's Blunt who plays the unflinching badass — and quite convincingly, I might add. She's lost her ability to relive the same day over and over again, but in the time when she could, she saw all manner of horrors and death; she's the one with the thousand-yard stare. She's also the one that knows that if Cruise is injured in any way in the current timeline, it's faster just to pop him with a shot to the head and start again then waste time finishing the day with a dislocated shoulder or broken leg.

It's small touches like that that bring Edge of Tomorrow to life. The alien invaders are interesting enough creatures, in their twisty, tentacle-ish, lightening-fast way, but they're never given enough of a personality for us to really see them more as random targets in a video game. And that's not really an issue, because the aliens aren't what the film is about. Video games on the other hand are a big part of what's happening here. It's the restart mentality of the game that makes it so interesting, and the idea that you learn from you mistakes and forge through the boring stuff you've already mastered to get to what's new. The goal of Edge of Tomorrow is to find a sort of hive central command that controls all the others aliens; knock it out and hopefully the rest go tumbling down. Cage and Vrataski go through countless iterations of the same day to find the right combination of moves to achieve their goal.

So often, action films (especially sci-fi ones) are criticized for being too much like video games, when in fact they really aren't, beyond perhaps a first-person POV shooting visual style. But here, Liman, McQuarrie and company fully embrace so many aspects of gaming, including the aftermath of death, which is going back to the start and figuring out the fastest way to get through what to you is familiar. In a couple of instances Cage completely circumnavigates his own narrative to surprising and sometimes wondrous consequences.

In addition to Gleeson and Paxton, I should also mention the always great and slightly bizarre Noah Taylor as Dr. Carter, a scientist who worked with Rita when she was reliving the same day and has figured out the pecking order among the aliens and how they always seem to be able to anticipate the humans' every move. The film is so clever in the way it creates an almost infinite number of alternate timelines that is seems almost disappointingly conventional in its final push through the streets of Paris in search of the controlling alien. But by that point, the film has so utterly sold you on its structure, how it wraps up almost doesn't matter.

I also loved learning about the futurized weaponry, the armor, the way a soldier is prompted by a computerized suit voice to "Reload" (sound familiar?). But I especially enjoyed watching those moments of Cruise trying to figure out how to operate the damn suit — even releasing the safety mechanism is a challenge for his first couple of lives. Of course, Cage becomes the hero by the end of the film, but for about 75 percent of it, he's not really, and it's great that Cruise actually allows Blunt to share and even steal the spotlight for huge portions of Edge of Tomorrow. The film is smart, perfectly paced and acted, and gives us an original take on sci-fi action films by borrowing from other mediums in interesting ways.

For some reason, I love watching Cruise most when he's trying on a new kind of role. Cage isn't that far afield for him, but it's a vastly different take on the hero than he's put on in the past. Edge of Tomorrow should be a true joy for all science fiction lovers.

The Fault in Our Stars

If you are someone that read John Green's wildly popular and apparently quite emotionally devastating novel The Fault in Our Stars and already know you're going to see this film, you don't need to read this review. You already know you're sold on seeing it, so I'm not really addressing you; you're wonderful, magical kids, but this review is more aimed at people who are on the fence about going to see the adaptation from director Josh Boone (Stuck in Love), working from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

I don't think you have to be a teenager to enjoy The Fault in Our Stars, but it would probably help. And I say that only to point out that the emotions of the two leads of this film would still be in flux and prone to extremes even if they didn't both have issues with cancer. So what we're left to deal with are two characters whose main means of expression are words like "amazing" and "crazy" and "insane" and "Wow!" And I'm not exaggerating or making fun of the writing here; it's just a fact. But when the have time to prepare, both Hazel and Augustus, or Gus (Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, who play brother and sister in Divergent), prepare such flowery words of love and philosophical outlooks on death and dying that is sounds overly scripted to an embarrassing fault. It doesn't help that Gus spends much of the first part of the film with a smug look on this face that seems to say, "I'm about to blow your mind with the thoughts I'm about to express," and we can't tell if he's thinking that to Hazel or the audience.

The two meet in a support group for kids with cancer, and Gus's main method of seduction is to simply stare at Hazel until she get nervous enough to ask him what the hell he's doing. What's particularly amusing about the course of their relationship is that we're supposed to understand that they are "just friends" for a great deal of their time together because that's what she says to other people, even though he clearly assumes that they're destined to be in love from the start. It sounds sweet, but it's actually ridiculous because it gives him no reason to work at it. He clearly thinks he's hot shit, so he falls back on flashing his smile and plying her with flowery words. They have so few actual conversations that I really struggled to figure out why they fall in love.

The supporting cast barely registers in the shadow of Woodley and Elgort. The closest character that makes an impression on us is Isaac (Nat Wolff), a fellow support-group member who is on the verge of losing his only functioning eye to his cancer, but once he's completely blind, he's funnier than ever. Hazel's parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) are portrayed as people who have been dealing with their only daughter's illness for so long, they have lost the will to direct her to good choices or say No to her about anything.

I realize I'm coming across as doing nothing but bitching about this film — and make no mistake, there's plenty to bitch about — but some of The Fault in Our Stars also works. Woodley's Hazel is a wonderfully realized character, with enough layers and contradictions to her personality that she is the closest thing to a real human being here. If you find any reason to love this film, it will likely be because of her. That being said, the film is one of the most overly narrated movies I've ever seen (or heard), and Shailene does all the voiceover, leaving us with a severe case of telling and not showing. Rather than let us watch this adorable couple actually go through the motions of falling in love or either of them deal substantially with the ups and downs of their health troubles, we hear about them through from Hazel's point of view.

One of the biggest surprises for me was how much it improved once Gus's health takes a turn for the worse. So many films about people struggling with potentially life-threatening ailments show us strong men and women blazing a trail of positive thinking on the road to healing or death. But here, Gus has an emotional meltdown the likes of which is never seen is these sorts of films, and for one of the few times in The Fault in Our Stars, I felt like I was watching a real person react the way I'm guessing many people in his situation do, at least at first.

A lot has been made and discussed (and will continue to be for weeks to come) about the sequence in which the pair first kiss — which I fully expect will win Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards next year — in the attic of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Yes, it's weird; yes, it reminded me of the "Seinfeld" bit where Jerry admits to making out with a woman during Schindler's List. But the scene doesn't cross any kind of line into bad taste. Hazel is inspired to live a life by actually living it, rather than waiting to die, and she decides the first step down that path is letting love into her heart. It might have happened somewhere a little more appropriate, but you do these things when the spirit grabs hold.

The Fault in Our Stars' most compelling sequence is the throughline about Hazel meeting the author of her favorite book, which leads to an interesting encounter with said writer (played like a true bastard by Willem Dafoe) in Copenhagen. I won't detail the exchange, but I found it a rather funny and absurd take on the idea that dying kids should get every wish that they want. But there's slightly more to it than that, and it takes a while for the true lesson of that encounter to come to light. It's a rare subtle moment in a movie I wish had had a few dozen more such instances.

The film never seems to want to take the risk that the audience can figure out the emotions itself without being taken by the hand and walked through them step by agonizing step. All of that being said, the audience I saw it with didn't just cry opening; there was legitimate sobbing happening in more than one spot. Sure, make me feel like the crazy, heartless one. The Fault in Our Stars is a deeply flawed film that has just enough going for it to make it impossible to just dismiss in total. I'd almost recommend it just for Woodley's performance, but there were just too many times when I found myself catching her trying to work around some truly poor writing. Still, it's undeniable as an effective piece of emotional manipulation that will likely have you in full weep mode, and there are worse things to go through, I suppose.

Words and Pictures

I suppose as someone who uses words as a tool for my work, I should be encouraging of films that deal directly with the teaching and use of words to smart kids. In theory, I suppose I am, but the new film from director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, Six Degress of Separation) sometimes makes it difficult to support a work that underscores the importance of competent writing in the age of social media and pure visual stimulation. Words and Pictures certainly has its heart (supplied by screenwriter Gerald DiPego) in the right place in a story in which English and art students at a fictional New England prep school have a debate about which is more important in the world: writing or art.

The young students are divided into factions led by two broken human beings who also happen to be teachers: on the side of words, we have Jack Marcus (Clive Owen), an alcoholic and published poet who has lost his creative spark and is rightfully fearful of being fired; on the side of pictures, there's famed abstract painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), whose chronic case of rheumatoid arthritis has forced her to mentally and physically figure out a new way to paint, since small brushes are no longer her friend. Marcus is clearly in love with teaching as well as putting out a student-written literature magazine, which the school wants to shut down. Dina is resentful that she's had to resort to teaching art to make up for the income she's losing from not painting. Naturally, there's a spark of romance between them that does not follow the path of your typical romantic-comedy.

There's no getting around the fact that Owen and Binoche are two of the best working today, and while the material here may be somewhat lighter weight than we're used to seeing them tackle (Binoche in particular), there's more to Words and Pictures than exists on its surface. Jack says and does some truly awful things in this film — to his estranged son, to his students, to complete strangers and even to Dina — when he's drunk, which is often. Jack is racing to a finish that only he sees with both the bottle and his job, and it's an interesting portrait in a self-destructive man who can't seem to live without teaching or booze. Dina's is a more complicated battle, because her illness (and the resulting bitterness) is still new to her, and her capacity to process what she's lost is still in flux, leading to a few vulnerable moments and total meltdowns.

The parts of Words and Pictures that I tended to dislike were the students, whose lives are so privileged that it's tough to take their war seriously, even if their teachers do. A pointless subplot about a male student fixating on and sexually harassing an Asian female student takes up far too much time, and its connections to the themes of the film are tenuous at best. And Jack's attempt to improve his image at school and in the community leads to predictable results that culminate in a restaurant scene that is just embarrassingly obvious in its execution from an acting and directing standpoint.

Still, Owen and Binoche help elevate the material just enough to keep the whole thing from being a complete disaster, and the messy way both characters live their lives and find a way to get deeper into the other's head is quite sincere and moving, even if it self-destructs just as things are getting good. Things wrap up just a bit too neatly for my tastes, which is not to say that all loose ends are dealt with. In many of his films, director Schepisi deals directly with the way in which people interact with each other, and rarely in a conventional way. I may not always like his movies, but I like that fact that he's still plugging away at them and trying out new ways to make us love and hate his characters. Words and Pictures is not the best of his work, but it's a curious and sometimes compelling examination nonetheless. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas

Stories of the rich shitting on the poor are practically as old as human existence and anything resembling a class system. But the versions of this tale that seem to stick with us are the ones where the underclass rise up and seek justice and equality, even if it is for a brief moment in time. Very often such an uprising ultimately fails, but the desire for fair treatment does not go unnoticed by the upper classes. One such story was written by Heinrich von Kleist in the early 1800s about a 16th century German (although the film is in French) horse trader and family man named Michael Kohlhaas, who was probably more middle class than poor, but he still lived under laws of society that made him a second-class citizen.

In Age of Uprising, Kohlhaas (played by the great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) is treated unjustly by a feudal lord and has two of his best horses taken by this entitled man and his henchman. When Kohlhaas is eventually told to come pick up his horses, they have clearly been mistreated and beaten, and he demands from the lord that they be returned in the shape they were taken (he refuses money in exchange for the horses). When Kohlhaas' wife (Delphine Chuillot) goes to speak to the territory's Princess (Roxane Duran), she is returned to Kohlhaas nearly dead, and it is made clear that he should just take his horses because he has no case against the lord. Enraged to the point of near insanity, Kohlhaas begins to raise a peasant army made up of common folk who have been wronged by those in higher societal positions, and they soon start terrorizing the territory.

It's unlikely you'll approve of Kohlhaas' methods, but that doesn't make this story any less compelling and heartbreaking as we know at a certain point that Kohlhaas doesn't want simple justice; he's seeking vengeance, while his little girl Lisbeth (Mélusine Mayance) watches his actions with a mixture of horror and curiosity. Director Arnaud des Pallière (who directed Adieu and co-wrote this screenplay with Christelle Berthevas) is interested in capturing the ambiguity of the Kohlhaas situation rather than passing judgement on a man that has often been referred to as a radical or fanatic.

The film has a few tremendous supporting performances from the likes of Bruno Ganz as the territory's governor, who attempts to broker a peace with Kohlhaas; Denis Lavant as The Theologist, who converses with Kohlhaas (in some of the film's best moments) about his objectives and methods, to little avail; and David Kross as a preacher, attempting to appeal to Kohlhaas' more God-fearing side. The way the film culminates is almost inevitable and perhaps even for the best, but that doesn't make it any easier to watch it slowly unfold.

Age of Uprising is at times shocking, stirring, and a classic example of the underdog simply wanting what is his and nothing more. It isn't meant to be a rousing endorsement of Kohlhaas' actions, but more an attempt to make us understand why he felt he had to resort to such actions. At the very least, the film will likely spark debate about whether he had other options. It's a compelling, stark and unforgettable work with one of the world's best actors at its center. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Age of Uprising star Mads Mikkelsen.

Burt's Buzz

Not having ever purchased a single product in the Burt's Bees line, I was still hugely curious about this documentary, which digs a bit into the life and mindset of its founder, Burt Shavitz, an unapologetic bearded hippie from way back who continues to live the simplest of lives in Maine, living off the land with his dog and not really caring that he was pushed out of his multi-million-dollar all-natural personal care company years ago.

To make sense of a great deal of what we see in the film, you have to understand that Shavitz doesn't really have a stake in the success of the company any longer. His only source of income is from making personal appearances on behalf of the product line that bears his name and likeness. When Burt was transitioning from a guy who sold honey out of his truck to something more of a branded business, his then-girlfriend, Roxanne Quimby, helped out a great deal with the business and marketing aspects of the products, and thus, the two are considered the company's co-founders. But as their relationship soured, Roxanne essentially pushed Burt out, took over the company and in 2007, sold it to The Clorox Company for hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, Clorox pays Burt to appear at retail stores and attend corporate events to take photos, sign autographs and shake a few thousand hands around the world.

You might start to feel sorry for Shavitz, but Burt's Buzz makes that difficult, because he's clearly not sitting around feeling sorry for himself. If anything, he seems more distraught by the broken relationship with Quimby than anything else about his situation. Director Jody Shapiro (How to Start Your Own Country) follows Shavitz over the course of several weeks as he does everything from handing out free samples at Target's flagship store in Minneapolis to heading to Taiwan, where he and these products are enormously successful, for a motivational talk/interview and other corporate duties. Still, the enthusiastic welcoming party of teenage girls that meets him at the airport in Taiwan seems a bit staged, and no one seems to have much to say to Shavitz past some pleasant greetings. There are more awkward silences in this film than a year's worth of Craig Ferguson episodes.

But it's the backstory — personal and professional — that is most intriguing about Burt's Buzz. The conversations about the early years of making his all-natural products are fascinating, right down to the decision to commission a series of label drawings from a local artist, including one of Burt. It's sometimes tough to wrap your brain around the idea that the lone wolf living in a shack with a pot belly stove in this movie is an internationally recognized beekeeper-turned-mogul, but the world has stranger stories than this. If nothing else, the entertaining and informative Burt's Buzz is proof positive that there is such think as a template for success. The film opens today in Chicago for a limited run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Director Jody Shapiro will take part in an audience discussion via Skype after the screening on Friday, June 6 at 7:45pm.

Exposed

A bit ragged around the edges and narrow in scope, the documentary Exposed is, at its core, a not-so-probing look at eight male and female burlesque performers in the New York City area (apparently the only place in the world with a thriving burlesque scene). And while the performances themselves are great fun or wonderfully original in most cases, the attempts at psychologically profiling each of the performers is a hit-and-miss affair.

Nearly every variety of male and female performer is represented here, and with names like Bunny Love, Rose Wood, Bambi the Mermaid and Dirty Martini, you're bound to find some who intrigue you more than others. I was especially fond of a male freak show performer, Mat Fraser, who has an disability he calls "flipper hands" and often acts as emcee of burlesque events featuring his girlfriend, Julie Atlas Muz. He's one of the few subjects who I feel is given a chance to really give us an idea of what his life was like leading into this line of work. And most importantly, he makes us understand where his confidence and outgoing personality come from.

I was certainly impressed to varying degrees at how knowledgeable many of the performers were about the history of burlesque and loved watching them frequently pay tribute to the old guard during their shows. Director and Chicago native Beth B digs a little into the social, political and sexual roots of her subjects, and while we certainly get an ear- and eyeful of the performers' words and bodies (including one female impersonator who gets breast implant surgery during the course of the film), I still felt like I wasn't getting to know these impressive and bold folks as much as I would have liked to. But fear not: the entertainment portion of the show is reason enough to see Exposed, and if you also happen to be a fan of lots of full-frontal male and female nudity, this film might have a touch of both.

The film plays from Friday, June 6 through Monday, June 9 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which asks patrons to note that the film includes full-frontal nudity and sexually suggestive imagery. So get your tickets early!

 

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Feature Mon Jun 09 2014

I Grew Up in a Big Ol' Gay Disco: an Interview with Oli Rodriguez

By H. Melt

Oli Rodriguez is an interdisciplinary artist working in film, photography, and performance. H. Melt sat down with him to find out more about his relationship to Chicago, the city's queer history, and how it impacts his artmaking.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jul 25 2014

Hercules, Lucy, A Most Wanted Man, I Origins, And So It Goes, Happy Christmas, Magic in the Moonlight, Under the Electric Sky & Closed Curtain

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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Mon Jul 28 2014
Impress These Apes @ ComedySportz

Mon Jul 28 2014
Physical Festival @ Links Hall

Tue Jul 29 2014
The Moth StorySLAM @ Martyrs'

Tue Jul 29 2014
Physical Festival @ Links Hall

Tue Jul 29 2014
This is Spinal Tap @ Millennium Park

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Physical Festival @ Links Hall

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Great Midwest Uke Fest @ Chief O'Neill's

Sun Aug 3 2014
American Graffiti & Car Show @ Portage Theater


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